Measuring Sea Ice Thickness with ICESat-2
- Visualizations by:
- Kel Elkins
- Produced by:
- Ryan Fitzgibbons
- View full credits
This visualization depicts sea ice thickness in the Arctic Ocean as measured by ICESat-2 over the course of several months. The visualization begins with a global view of the north pole as individual tracks are drawn over time representing each time the satellite passes overhead and collects sea ice data. A closeup view of one track is revealed, showing how the ICESat-2 laser can measure ice freeboard (height above sea level), which can be used to calculate total ice thickness. The visualization concludes by showing monthly average of sea ice thickness from November 2018 to March 2019.
Sea ice thickness is typically estimated by first measuring sea ice freeboard - how much of the floating ice can be observed above sea level. Sea ice floats slightly above sea level because it is less dense than water.
NASA’s ICESat-2 satellite measures the Earth’s surface height by firing green laser pulses towards Earth and timing how long it takes for those laser pulses to reflect back to the satellite. Ice freeboard is calculated by differencing the heights of the ice surface and areas of open water next to the ice. Additional information including the depth and density of the snow layer on top of the ice is needed to convert this freeboard measurement to sea ice thickness. New state-of-the-art snow accumulation models have been developed to provide this extra data in preparation for the launch of ICESat-2.
The very high precision of the ICESat-2 laser has enabled us for to measure the thickness of very thin sea ice for the first time. As the Arctic warms rapidly it is becoming increasingly dominated by a younger and thinner ice cover, making these new measurements extremely invaluable for understanding our changing polar regions.
Please give credit for this item to:
NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio
- Kel Elkins (USRA) [Lead]
- Alek A. Petty (University of Maryland)
- Nathan T. Kurtz (NASA/GSFC)
- Thomas A. Neumann (NASA/GSFC)
- Ryan Fitzgibbons (KBRwyle) [Lead]
SeriesThis visualization can be found in the following series:
Datasets used in this visualization
ICESat-2 Sea Ice Freeboard (Collected with the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS) sensor)
Note: While we identify the data sets used in these visualizations, we do not store any further details nor the data sets themselves on our site.